By Pippi Mayfield
DULUTH — They are considered the last line of communication. When everything else fails, they can bridge the communication gap and connect people.
Doug Nelson and Dave Miller are just two of the 750,000 registered amateur radio — better known as ham radio — users.
“I wanted to be available to help people,” Miller said about why he got involved in ham radio. “That was my main interest.”
He is now the Douglas County emergency coordinator.
Nelson has a list of coordinator positions and responsibilities after his name as well, and both Nelson and Miller are involved in multiple groups throughout the Twin Ports area.
Ham radio uses AM radio frequencies, amateur bands, to communicate. According to the National Association of Amateur Radio, other bands include government, military and police.
Depending on the band the ham radio operator uses, they can talk across town, the world or even satellites in space. Amateurs learn and study before taking an examination for a Federal Communications Commission license to operate on the amateur frequency bands.
Since 1989, Nelson has logged 6,000-plus contacts in 278 countries. “He is the mentor of mentors in this area,” Miller said of Nelson and his amateur radio abilities.
Miller got his start in ham radio a little bit later. He took a community education class on the subject 12 years ago — not that he wasn’t interested before that though.
“Since I was a kid, the crystal radio days, I was fascinated with it,” he said.
Once Miller was an adult, he took the community education class, and that’s where he met Nelson.
After Miller earned his license, he went to Nelson and said, “I have a license, now I need to learn.”
Both are a part of the local Arrowhead Radio Amateurs Club and the American Relay Radio League. The reason for the continued growth in ham radio popularity can’t be tracked, but Nelson said he thinks the numbers are at an all-time high due to an interest in electronics and for emergency purposes.
Dave Miller is an amateur radio operator. Bob King / Forum News Service
The fun side
While some amateurs may focus on just the hobby portion of ham radio or the emergency side (like Miller), there are guys like Nelson who partake in both extensively.
Not only does he talk his way through the radio frequencies, Nelson has another skill he uses often — Morse code. “It’s one of those fascinating arts out there,” Miller said of Morse code. He doesn’t know much about Morse code but would like to learn, he said.
Demonstrating his skills, Nelson holds a conversation with someone in the Netherlands. What do you say to someone in another country?
“Keep it generic,” he said. “No religion, no politics. Well, you’re not supposed to anyway.”
He can click out about 25 words per minute.
Nelson and Miller can easily tick off projects they have worked on, introducing others to ham radio or helping out at events. Those projects have ranged from helping with a high altitude balloon launch with Two Harbors High School students to helping kids at the former Children’s Museum club talk to the International Space Station.
During an event to help celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary last year, ham radio users — including Nelson and Miller — activated NPS units in national parks throughout the U.S. to promote the parks. The men said 1.2 million people made contacts with the parks within the year. This was the biggest event of its sorts ever done. They have also helped with communications during Grandma’s Marathon, the NorthShore Inline Marathon, the Superior Man Triathlon and more.
“This hobby has so many directions,” Miller said.
The emergency side
Douglas County set up a space in the emergency communications portion of the courthouse to house the amateur radio members and three work stations. They have the high-frequency station where they can talk to other radio users throughout the world, the voice station where they can talk regionally and the IP station where they can communicate through the internet.
While they can provide assistance for light or athletic events, ham radio users are needed to serve in possibly life-threatening and emergency instances. Amatuer radio users helped during the Pagami Creek fire in 2011; during Toxic Tuesday in 1992, when a train containing benzene derailed and 50,000 people were forced to evacuate Minnesota and Wisconsin; during the 2012 flood in Duluth and many more.
One aspect they work with on a regular basis is Skywarn with the National Weather Service. There are 15 ham radio operators who are notified when a storm is approaching. That group decides the shifts they will take in the NWS office to help gather information.
Nelson and Olson agree this is one of their most important jobs. Doppler radar is only so good because it can detect weather, but can’t see what’s actually going on.
“We coordinate a lot of eyeballs,” Nelson said.
Nelson added he’s been told by weather service people that they couldn’t do their jobs as well without the ham radio crew.
“They help us make warning decisions,” said Carol Christenson, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Duluth. She’s a ham radio operator herself. She got into it about 15 years ago for her job. She said she felt that if she was working with ham radio operators, she better know what to do, too.
While there are other trained storm spotters throughout the region, “a large number of them are amateur radio users,” she said.
Not only are the radio operators the eyes and ears when lines of communications go down, they are the communicators.
“They are wonderful people and so willing to help,” she said.
Miller said he saw that kindness among ham radio operators from the start, too.
“No one is trying to outdo you. If you have a question, they are willing to help you,” he said. “People who understand it really appreciate it.”